University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Learning as Child's Play

Jesse Ilhardt emphasized creative, play-based learning in a popular Wrigley Field TEDx talk.

Alisha Tova

When Jesse Ilhardt (B.A. ’08) was growing up in the Arlington Heights suburb of Chicago, she began to recognize a key facet of raising children that still informs her career decades later: Bring creative, play-based learning into a child’s life as much as possible.

In the Ilhardt family’s expansive backyard, she and her younger brother would “play for hours on end, allowing us to really use our imagination,” Ilhardt says. And when she worked as a babysitter in her early teens, she found real value for the kids in adding fun activities, something she continued while working as a nanny during college. After graduating, she saw the importance of strengthening early-childhood education with learning layered with play as a Teach for America educator.

Today, Chicago-based Ilhardt is harnessing her past to inform her present and future. In 2014, she cofounded VOCEL (Viewing our Children As Emerging Leaders), a nonprofit organization “that works with the adults who most impact young children’s brain development, whether that’s a parent or nanny or caregiver,” explains Ilhardt, who’s married with two young sons.

10 Things in 10 Minutes

In this 10 Things in 10 Minutes video chat, Jesse Ilhardt talks with Marissa Smith from the U of M Alumni Association about finding her career path, the best advice she's ever received, her favorite spots on campus, and the importance of exemplary early education experiences. 

VOCEL runs Chicago-area programs such as the Child Parent Academy to teach parents and caregivers how to turn ordinary interactions with children into brain-building and enriching moments. Another program works with teachers from pre-kindergarten up to first grade on bringing social-emotional learning into the classroom.

What began as a venture reaching about 20 children has blossomed into programs affecting more than 2,500 students annually.

Creativity and Depression

Research at the U of M suggests that creative activities might also help adolescents experiencing depression. 

Last summer, a group of 12-to 17-year-olds with symptoms of depression participated in an innovative Creativity Camp at the U of M’s Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain. There they learned how to contra dance, work with clay, and pursued a variety of other creative endeavors.

The camp gave researchers a chance to study how young brains respond to creative activities, and whether those activities can affect depression. With the National Institute of Mental Health reporting that in 2020, 12 percent—2.9 million—of U.S. adolescents had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment in the previous year, the stakes could scarcely be higher.

“When they experience depression, adolescents get stuck in a rut with their thinking and emotions. They have a hard time shifting out of that,” says camp cocreator Kathryn Cullen, associate professor and head of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Medical School. 

Creativity Camp participants had brain MRI scans before and after camp. The scans measured, for example, brain structure and brain function during both rest and a novel “imagination task.” The early results were promising: After camp, depression symptoms were lower and scores on measures of well-being higher. You can read more about this study at

Fun is at the cornerstone of what Ilhardt and her team preach at VOCEL. “If parents or educators are too sure about what a child should do with an object, that might subconsciously shut down the idea of play,” she says. “Open-ended play materials are the best way for kids to stay occupied and learning, compared to, say, a battery-operated toy they’ll typically use for a few minutes before they’re done with it for good.” She adds that by simply bringing a measuring cup into the bathtub with children, parents can teach children about volume and the transfer of properties.

Her thesis on this kind of learning formed the backbone of a popular TEDx Talk, filmed at Wrigley Field, which has amassed more than 900,000 views from two video releases.

In her talk, she addresses a challenge that some parents bring up: “[A factor] I see negatively impacting play-based learning is that we, as grownups, parents, and teachers, just don’t always like hearing that [it] might require something of us. Because that means it will take time, energy, and skills we don’t think we have. But not only is it worth our time, it can be done in really small doses.” 

A growing collection of data supports Ilhardt’s suggestions about inviting a less rigid form of learning into the home and classroom. For example, a 2017 report from the LEGO Foundation, Learning Through Play, analyzed 26 studies of play and found it can be used as a possible intervention to close achievement gaps in children ages 3 to 6.

Alisha Tova

Ilhardt’s idea for VOCEL took shape during her six years at Teach for America, where she initially taught preschool in a majority Hispanic neighborhood. She later transitioned into coaching educators through the nonprofit organization. She saw firsthand a static and conformist structure of teaching in which “I had to ensure the students were quiet, never bouncing off the walls.”

When Ilhardt attended the University, majoring in strategic communication in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the varied coursework appealed to her. “Being exposed to such a wide variety of courses was really beneficial,” she says. And the writing skills she gained there may also come in handy sooner rather than later.

“I’ve been thinking of writing a book about play-based learning that recognizes the challenges parents face in raising their children and gives them the tools they can use to make a big difference in their kids’ lives,” she says.

David Silverberg is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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